The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, 18 August 2019

Track One:
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18

Track Two:
Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Saint Luke 12:49-56

Background: Influences

There are several things that marked the people who found themselves being attracted to Jesus and his preaching, some to join him, and others to reject him. What did bind them together were several factors. First of all there was the patriarchal history, with its story of Abraham and Sarah – all seemed to spring from this experience. Despite a variety of names and guises, all were oriented to a national God, YHWH, whose national stance was blunted a bit by the later prophets and the influx of other peoples into the Jewish sphere, and indeed to flow of Jews into the diaspora. These people had a deep relationship to the land as a gift, and a place of return. There was a holy record, the Torah, along with the other writings of the Prophets and Psalms. The wisdom of these books invited certain ritual behaviors, some of which put them at odds with the broad culture of their time. The center of religion, at least for those Jews living in the Levant, was the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem, the latest manifestation of several buildings meant as a focus for worship of the Jewish God. Later developments, however, largely flowing out of the experience of exile, would see the development of other religious/social institutions, such as the synagogue, which would gather people, inculcate them, and serve as a place of casuistry and prayer. Women enjoyed certain freedoms both financial and social. Finally, there was a ground bed of messianic hope and speculation, which forms the immediate context in which Jesus began his ministry of preaching and confrontation. It is clear, however, that life here was hardly homogenous. The ancient influences of the trade routes and the cultures to the east and to the south that flowed through the Levant to the west would leave their mark. Amy-Jill Levine comments on these “diverse Judaisms” in her article on the culture of early Judaisms.

“Jewish life was so sufficient, robust and diverse that some scholars prefer to speak of early "Judaisms." Different schools of thought, such as Pharisees and Sadducees, provide only small indication of this diversity; most Jews did not fall into any of these categories. Claims that the "council of Jamnia" (Yavneh) ca. 90
established the canon, mandated synagogue policy and liturgy, and created a normative Judaism grossly overstate the evidence. Jews generally claimed a common ancestry and history, set of practices and texts, theology, relation to land and Temple, and synagogue communities. Within these parameters, they were able to accommodate various beliefs and practices, adapt to changing rule, and survive national disasters without losing their identity.”[1]


Track One:

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!

Into a section devoted to the destruction of Jerusalem, the first Isaiah diverts us for a second and gives us a love song. However, the diversion is only momentary, for he continues the theme as before. The images are all the more striking, have seduced the reader into the love song first. In early American painting we often see the American experience allegorized as “the new Eden,” and so it here. Israel is the vineyard (or in other instances the olive grove). This is not the only context in which the situation is seen. We hear of the vineyard and of its tender, but soon we are dragged into the courtroom to bear witness to the contention between the two. What is the cause of the dissension? “Wild grapes” is brought to the hearer’s mind, and the prophet allows the hearer to image and understand what is intended by the prophet’s words. What follows are a series of consequences – protections removed, maintenance and care denied, and most importantly a lack of rain and water. At the end of the pericope, the prophet does not mince his words, “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” The widow and the orphan are not mentioned here, but we hear their cry.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     What images do you see in the vineyard?
2.     What role does God have as the farmer?
3.     How do we hear the cry of the widow and orphan?

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18 Qui regis Israel

1      Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
2      In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
8      You have brought a vine out of Egypt; *
you cast out the nations and planted it.
9      You prepared the ground for it; *
it took root and filled the land.
10    The mountains were covered by its shadow *
and the towering cedar trees by its boughs.
11    You stretched out its tendrils to the Sea *
and its branches to the River.
12    Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?
13    The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.
14    Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.
15    They burn it with fire like rubbish; *
at the rebuke of your countenance let them perish.
16    Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.
17    And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.
18    Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

The reasons for the inclusion of this psalm here are obvious enough – its references to the vine and Egypt recalling at some level the reading from Isaiah. The psalm, however, is more pointed in its intentions, for “leading Joseph like a flock” indicates to us that this is intended for the northern kingdom, and the on-set of the Assyrian forces. The vine carried out of Egypt is Israel, and the allusion would not have been lost on the ancient peoples singing this psalm. What the psalm underscores is the absurd notion that God should painstakingly remove Israel from Egypt, transplant it and have it flourish, only to cut it down? It is a comedy that indicts. The fate of the vine and its vineyard bears a resemblance to the fate of Isaiah’s vineyard. At the end the image changes, and now Israel is the son, the chosen one, and “the man of your right hand.” There is salvation here.

Breaking open Psalm 80:

1.        Have you ever transplanted a plant?
2.        What did you do to make certain that it would survive?
3.        How much effort did it take?


Track Two:

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back-- those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

To underscore the forgetfulness of national leadership, and indeed the people themselves, the prophet begins by talking about the ubiquity of God. It is a theme that is explored in the psalms as well (Psalm 139). The prophet begs a comparison, such as the dreams of prophets and the genuine word that God intends as the prophet’s true word. What is indicated here is a subtle shift in nuance. The ubiquity of God may be obviated by some distance, the distance of the prophets from the genuine Word. What is left unspoken here is Jeremiah’s dispute with other prophets, perhaps the court prophets whose job was to prop up the royal relationship with God. There is true distance here – the kind that wounds a relationship. 

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     What is Jeremiah’s point?
2.     What do you imagine his relationships with the other prophets to be like?
3.     Is there distance between you and God?

Psalm 82        Deus stetit

1      God takes his stand in the council of heaven; *
he gives judgment in the midst of the gods:
2      "How long will you judge unjustly, *
and show favor to the wicked?
3      Save the weak and the orphan; *
defend the humble and needy;
4      Rescue the weak and the poor; *
deliver them from the power of the wicked.
5      They do not know, neither do they understand;
they go about in darkness; *
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6      Now I say to you, 'You are gods, *
and all of you children of the Most High;
7      Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, *
and fall like any prince.'"
8      Arise, O God, and rule the earth, *
for you shall take all nations for your own.

The psalm begins with a series of assumptions that are patently false. A false portrait of God’s role among the gods in the court of heaven is painted in detail only to be destroyed and given up. What makes the words powerful is that God is the speaker, and we are the judge. The dispute is about injustice in the world, and the supposed powers of the earth are called to account for their injustice. What are indicted here are not only the old mythological systems of the old gods, but the evil regimes, which were held up by them. The end of verse five is more than hyperbole, “all the foundations of the earth are shaken.” They are not shaken because of a judgment that God has imposed upon them, but because they are bankrupt and insufficient to the plight of the people who “go about in darkness.” In the end, God reiterates their titles, “all of you children of the Most High”, but it ends there. “You shall die like mortals.” The old notions have passed away, and God has moved into the seat of judgment. 

Breaking open Psalm 82:
1.     What are the gods of this world?
2.     What are the gods in your life?
3.    How have they failed you?

The Second Reading: Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

This collection of pericopes begins with the faith of Moses (11:23) and then proceeds down a hierarchy of faith and experience in ancient Israel. What our reading focuses on, by beginning with her, is the person of Rahab. There is some controversy about her true nature, ranging from “the prostitute” to that of “the hospitable innkeeper.” What does matter in this context however, are her behaviors in the story – hiding the spies, becoming a believer. Thus we have contrasting portraits of Moses – the leader and lawgiver, and Rahab, the ancestor of Jesus and keeper of the faith. What follow this contrast are further examples of faith – and the consequences of faith. In his usual excruciating detail, the author sketches out the difficulties that encounter faith. This is to lead into the realization that we surrounded by many such stories, stories known to us from the Bible and stories known to us from the privacy of our own lives. Given that reality, we can run the race.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What do you think of the list of people of faith?
  2. Whom would you add?
  3. Why?

The Gospel: St. Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

Jesus pleads with us to known our own times. Often we are tempted to only know the times that are referred to in the Gospels or other scriptures, but here, I think, we are bidden to know our own visitation. Jesus is not sanguine about the consequences of our vigilance, or indeed of our following him. It will be catastrophic. These are stressful images, John’s fire, peace and swords, divided households, the human family in contention. What we need to keep in mind is that Jesus has already “done violence” to the family by challenging our preconceived notions about it (how timely a topic is that?) These are provocative images designed to get the hearer ready for the consequences of arriving at Jerusalem. Jesus then turns from the disciples to the crowds and he does not spare them either. He appeals to their innate knowledge of nature and what they see from day to day, but again it is the consequences and meaning that seem to elude them.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Has Jesus caused divisions in your life?
2.     How?
3.    What are the signs of the time for you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Levine, A., (2010), “Culture of Early Judaism”, The New Interpreter’s® Bible One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Kindle Location 37335.


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